"Easter in the Neighborhood: Here's How"

Each year, the Finke family teams with our neighbors to host an Easter Sunrise Gathering in our neighborhood. It is a simple undertaking that has had powerful long-term results. For instance:

  • Neighbors who are not yet ready for church, willingly hear the good news of Jesus.
  • Neighbors have a common spiritual experience that changes the status quo of relationships in the neighborhood. (Grace does that.)
  • We have seen de-churched neighbors re-engage local churches.
  • We have seen neighbors baptized in Jesus’ name.

None of this is even remotely surprising since Jesus is already on the loose in our neighborhood. And here’s the thing: He’s already on the loose in your neighborhood, too.

If you are ready to see what Jesus can do with an Easter gathering in your neighborhood, here is a simple plan for getting started. Easter is April 1 this year, so it’s not too late to plan yours. (No fooling!)

As You Begin...

  1. Keep it simple. Don’t approach this as you would a big church event with lots of moving parts. Instead, approach it as a low-key neighborhood gathering. The focus is fostering relationships… with Jesus and each other.
  2. Start small. Don’t shoot for LOTS of people coming from all over. Start with your immediate block. Give yourself the grace to start small and learn as you go.
  3. Check your motive. Is your real motive to get neighbors to eventually come to your church? (Been there done that.) Or is it for them to meet Jesus in the neighborhood? Remember, neighbors can smell your bait-and-switch tactics from a mile away, no matter how good your intentions may be. Instead, focus on simply introducing neighbors to what Jesus has done for them. Let Jesus be in charge of where they go from there.  We will get much further if our neighbors know us as joyful Jesus-followers rather than church-sales representatives.
  4. Pray. Pray for the Lord of the Harvest to prepare the way in the lives of your neighbors.  In fact, take a moment to start now… Invite many others to pray the same intercession. “Come, Holy Spirit, come.”

Some decisions that need to be made soon: (Note: Before you make final decisions, ask your immediate neighbors for their input. If you don’t yet know your immediate neighbors, honestly, it is probably best to postpone an Easter observation and instead plan a gathering where neighbors can get to know each other first.)

  1. Where will it be?  Will you have the gathering outside or inside? In a home or in a public venue? In many parts of the U.S., being outside is a great option and capacity isn’t an issue. However, if you are where Easter weather is not so pleasant, gathering in a home or neighborhood club house makes sense. Plan to invite just enough people to fill the space, whether that be a small group or larger. If hosting is not your gift, ask someone who enjoys hosting to open up their home.
  2. What time will it be?  The Finke’s stick with sunrise, which is usually around 7:00 a.m. in our area. (This year sunrise is 7:10 a.m.) Why have the gathering so early? Because the excitement of the original Easter kicked off at sunrise! But sunrise also works well because the gathering happens well before people have other activities. You might think early is not the best choice. But it works!  We have gone from a few dozen people gathering the first year to well over 100 today. And most of the participants are not church-goers.
  3. What’s the win? In other words, what will success look like for you?  Again, this is “motive-checking time.” Decide now that the win isn’t wrapped up in the quantity of people who come but in the quality of the time you have together.

Here’s how we do our Easter Gathering:

  1. Invite immediate neighbors to help. Something good happens when neighbors are invited to give of themselves for the good of others.  You might think it is easier to do everything yourself. Don’t do it. When the gathering is something “we” (the neighbors) do together, the impact is deeper. Invite neighbors to help with things like the following:
  • Bring chairs and tables
  • Provide coffee, juice, donuts, paper products (etc.)
  • Come a little early so they can welcome other neighbors as they arrive.
  • Help with the devotional part of the gathering (see below).

2. Get information about Easter out to the neighborhood approximately 10 days early. The Finke’s use social media, printed fliers, word of mouth among neighbors and a yard sign to invite people to participate. We work hard not to use churchy words. Remember, this is a neighborhood gathering not a Festival Worship Service.

Here is a sample of what we include:

  • “Join Your Neighbors on Easter Morning!”
  • When: Sunrise, April 1, 7:10 a.m.
  • How Long: 30 minutes-ish (plus coffee and conversation time)
  • Where: In the green space at the end of Wickford Court
  • What to Expect: a reminder of what Easter is about, a message for the kids, some simple music and a great time with neighbors.
  • Bring a lawn chair if you can
  • Don’t know much about Easter? This is a good time and a safe place to find out more.
  • Hosted by your neighbors on Wickford Court

3. Keep the devotional portion short.  25-30 minutes tops. For your neighbors “less is probably more.” So here is a sample of how we lay out the devotional part of the gathering:

  • To start: we start with some simple guitar music to help alert people that we are gathering together (we have a simple altar area set up with a cross to help provide a focus for the space).
  • Greeting: welcome them as neighbors. Remind them why we are gathered. Explain why sunrise.
  • Song: with the music, be realistic.  We may love big music on Easter - bands, orchestras, organs, bells, lots of hymns, etc. However, we are talking about a neighborhood gathering here not Festival Worship at church. Regarding group singing: less is also more. Our experience is that people are generally not comfortable with singing along. So, invite them to sing, but be ready for them to choose simply to listen. Keep the length of songs brief.
  • Prayer: give thanks to God for the death and resurrection of Jesus to take away our sins (see sample below)
  • Scripture Reading: read one of the Easter Gospels
  • Kids' Moment: use Google to find one you like
  • Devotion: Keep it brief and simple. 10 minutes or less. Invite everyone to receive Jesus’ love and forgiveness – after all it’s why He did all the work of suffering, dying and rising again. And then invite them to freely offer that love and forgiveness to their family, neighbors, coworkers and classmates every day. It’s what everyone needs.
  • Prayer: pray for neighbors and the neighborhood (see sample below)
  • A blessing: choose a blessing from Scripture to speak over everyone (see sample below)
  • A final song verse

We have found great value in asking neighbors to help with the devotion:

  • Someone can read the Easter Gospel
  • Help with a kid’s moment
  • Help with music
  • Lead a prayer. Here’s a couple samples:

*Dear Jesus, thank you for dying and rising in order to take away our sins and make us right with the Father. Help us to believe that you love us that much. Help us to receive the love and forgiveness you freely offer each of us. And then help us to share that love with our neighbors who need it so badly. In your name we pray.

*Dear Father, we know you so loved this world and this neighborhood that you sent your only Son to die on the cross and rise again so that we would not perish but have abundant and eternal life. As we head back to our homes and into this new week, help us to freely receive your love and life and to freely give it away to others. In Jesus’ name we pray.

  • Announce a closing blessing on the neighbors and neighborhood. Here’s a sample:

*The Lord bless us and keep us. The Lord make his face shine upon us and be gracious to us. The Lord look upon us and this neighborhood with his favor. And give us his peace. Amen.

*From Luke 24, Why do you look for the living among the dead? Remember how he told you, “The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.” Remember his words. Believe his words. And now let’s go with him back into our neighborhood, our workplaces and schools so that we can be a blessing to the people there. Amen.

While we as Christians will place the highest importance on the devotional time of the gathering, the things that happen before and after the devotional time may be just as important for the non-Christian this Easter! Especially when you consider the long term. Remember, the friendly conversations and connections that happen before and after the devotional time set up ongoing conversations and connections over time. The good news of Jesus is the seed and the friendly conversation and connections are like the cultivation of soil so the seed has a better place to land.

Enjoy your Easter adventure with Jesus!

A final note for nervous congregational leaders:

In my 25+ years of pastoring, I have rarely seen 100 Lutherans gather for an Easter Sunrise Service in my congregations. And yet more than 100 people gather every Easter sunrise in my neighborhood. So here’s an idea: what if we stopped emphasizing coming to an Easter Sunrise Service at the church building and started preparing members to have Easter Sunrise Gatherings in their neighborhoods instead? Members can still come together for congregational worship later in the morning.  Could this be a win-win, both-and opportunity?

Think of it this way: we can struggle to get a few dozen of our members to our congregational sunrise services, or we can send out a few dozen of our congregational members into their neighborhoods to do Easter Sunrise Gatherings.  A few dozen becomes hundreds hearing the good news of Easter.  If three dozen members have just 10 people each at a neighborhood gathering, that adds up to 360! Something to think and pray about…

The New BIG Goal for Easter 2017

7:16 a.m. Easter Morning

7:16 a.m. Easter Morning

It was just before sunrise this past Easter Sunday morning. 100+ neighbors gathered in the predawn light in a public green space near our home to commemorate and celebrate the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. There was excitement. There was joy. There was community. There were donuts. There was the resurrected Jesus on the loose in the neighborhood.

And there were Baptisms... seven of them... two families who live in the neighborhood and who are now citizens of the same Kingdom. There was water and the Word. There were covenant promises made by the Father. There were smiles, and tears and laughter. And hugs... lots and lots of hugs.

This was the fifth year we've had Easter Sunrise in the Neighborhood.  I get asked a lot, "How does that happen?"  How does 100+ neighbors gathering before sunrise happen?? (Full disclosure: When I was the pastor of a local church we could never even get 100 members to a sunrise service!) How does having seven neighbors ask for Baptism happen?? Facebook comments were excited when I posted pictures later that day. People wrote things like, "That is simply amazing!" "So awesome!" "Wow! Like the early Church!"

Friends across the country were blessed to know what Jesus was up to in our neighborhood.

But that's just it. There is no reason this should be a unique or amazing story in my particular neighborhood. This could be normal.  This kind of story could be status quo for Easter morning in our neighborhoods all over the country. (Yes, I know Midwest, you alway like to point to the challenge of your Easter weather.  Got it.  So, instead of 100 in a green space, change the narrative to 20 in a warm space. :)

Allow me to take the mystery (and fear) out of being a neighborhood missionary. It really does boil down to this: do you want to see more unbaptized people baptized in the next year? Start investing in friendships with a couple unbaptized people beginning this week.

Going to church every Sunday doesn't make you a missionary.

Having mission passion and a mission strategy doesn't make you a missionary.

One thing makes you a missionary... do you have a growing friendship with Jesus and with an unbaptized person or two? You see, it really does boil down to actual time spent with actual unbaptized people... having fun, having a meal, having a conversation, enjoying them as a person of value. Not for hours and hours every week. They probably don't want to be with you that much! But some time every couple weeks invested in the friendship.

Fun Fact: There are approximately 7.2 billion people on the face of the earth currently. Of those 7.2 billion people, 2.2 billion are Christian.  That leaves 5 billion preChristian, unbaptized people for the 2.2 billion Christians.  Sounds overwhelming, right?  "Let's all head out this week and shoot for about a million unbelievers each.  We'll report back next Sunday and see how we did!"  Sounds crazy.

But how does the math really work out? Do you know how many preChristian, unbaptized people there are per Christian on the earth? It's about two each. Two. 5 billion divided by 2.2 billion = about 2 people each. Two preChristian, unbaptized people for each Christian. Hmmm... two isn't so crazy. In fact, two is doable.

What might happen if over the next year each Christian were to invest in friendships with 2 unbaptized people?

So what is your church's mission/outreach/evangelism strategy for the next year? What if you put that on hold and shifted the strategy to simply this: over the next year each member offers friendship to two unbaptized people who are already living/working/playing nearby. Meet them, find out their names, eat with them, laugh and visit with them.  Find out their story. Find out what they think, what matters to them, what makes them mad, what they value, what they hope. It's simpler than we think and a lot more fun.

And share your story, too. Who you are. What you feel. Who you lean on. Not all at once. But as the conversation invites it. It takes time. Be patient. Enjoy it. (Remember, Jesus has got this. He is just ahead of you not just behind.)

After one year, if you have 100 people in church, there could be friendships with 200 unbaptized people in the neighborhoods.  What other strategy offers such potential?  What program could you substitute that results in 100 Christians having friendships with 200 unbaptized neighbors?

Will all 200 people want to be baptized in a year? No. But here's how this math works: no friendships with unbaptized people = the number of adult baptisms you saw last year.  200 friendships with unbaptized people = more than you saw last year.

So here's the new Easter Sunday 2017 BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal): two friends who just happen to be unbaptized.

Ready, set, go.

Unbaptized no more. "You are Mine."

Unbaptized no more. "You are Mine."

The Reason He Took Away Our Sins

“As we prepare to celebrate what we’re saved from, let’s not forget to champion what we’re saved for.”

It’s almost Holy Week.  For congregational leaders this is a busy, busy time because we are making such important preparations. A lot is riding on these next ten (or so) days. This is the Super Bowl of the Church Year. Many more people than usual will gather ready to be led through the climactic events of our Lord’s redemptive work. There will be liturgy and word; experience and emotion; symbol and sound; table, garden, cross, and tomb.

And we need to prepare…

There are messages to write, music to rehearse, experiences to plan, decorations to arrange, bulletins to print… and to what end? We want the people of God to hear and experience the good news of God: Jesus died on the cross and rose again to save us from our sins!

But as we prepare to help the people of God celebrate what they are saved FROM, let’s not forget to champion what they are saved FOR. Easter is not a finish line; it is a launching pad! Let’s go ahead and tell them the REST of the story. Let’s go ahead and tell them what is now in play BECAUSE Jesus died and rose. Let’s go ahead and tell them what they are saved to DO.  On Easter Sunday Jesus launched a redemptive ADVENTURE and many of our people don’t even know about it!

In our Lutheran teachings we are very clear and specific in confessing what we are saved FROM.  We are saved FROM sin, death and the power of the devil.  A stunning gift that is worthy of tremendous celebration!  However, it also seems that we Lutherans are not always as specific about confessing and celebrating what we are saved FOR.

And what ARE we saved for? What is the rest of the story? Why exactly did Jesus die on the cross and rise again to save us from sin, death and the devil? Was it so we could simply run out the clock until we die and go to Heaven someday?

A favorite passage for us Lutherans is Ephesians 2:8-9. And for good reason, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.” In these verses we are given the nuts and bolts of our salvation. But verses 8-9 are followed by verse 10. And verse 10 tells us WHY God did all that work of grace-ing us and faith-ing us. Was it just to get us into Heaven someday? Or was it because He also has something up His sleeve for our Monday?

Verse 10 clears it up, “For we are God’s workmanship [God did all that work of grace-ing us and faith-ing us for a reason], [we are] created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” There it is! That’s what we are saved FOR!

We are saved FROM sin, death and the devil SO THAT we can participate in the mission of God again.  We are saved FOR getting up each morning and heading out with Jesus to participate in the good which the Father has prepared in advance for us to do.

That’s the rest of the story.  That’s what the people of God get to DO!

Because we are baptized, every morning, Jesus in effect is kneeling near our bed waiting for our eyes to flutter open.  When He sees we are returning to consciousness He smiles and says to us, “Good morning! I’m glad you’re finally awake!  As soon as you’re ready, let’s go see what the Father has prepared in advance for us to do today. It’ll be fun! Come, follow me!”

Saved from sin, death and the devil. Saved for joining Jesus on His mission.

As we prepare to help our people celebrate what they are saved FROM, let’s not forget to champion what they are saved FOR.

In the Gospels, Easter wasn’t the finish line for Jesus; it was the launching pad for His all-out rescue mission. This Holy Week that rescue mission is still in full play and Jesus is still inviting us who are saved and free to join with Him. Go ahead and tell your people the good news! Go ahead and tell them that Jesus died and rose not just so we could go to Heaven someday (a stunning gift) but so that we could go with Him on Monday, too (a great adventure)! It’s what we were saved FOR.

“Good morning! Let’s go see what the Father’s prepared in advance for us to do!”